16 January 2011

Body Double



Brian De Palma films are funny creatures. A lot of his output is only made for cinephiles, with inside references and layered homages to all the classics that shaped him and shaped film. Like Hitchcock, his favorite go-to, De Palma worries over complicated camera moves and the iconography of details more than he worries over actual cinematography (which ranges wildly from gorgeous to naturalistic to flat) or performance (which ranges wildly from comedic to dramatic to hammy). His sense of pacing within a sequence is very good, but like Hitch, his sense of pacing for the story as a whole is often awkward, with fits and starts and time devoted to minor beats because they are tense at the expense of major beats that, though less tense, are actually the more important moments.

The plot itself is a pretty Hitchesque mindfuck, and that's fun, but it's a little too easy to piece together for Jake. Maybe it's that I just came off a couple of mystery films that devote time to connecting all the pieces and Body Double isn't a mystery at all, but a thriller, but when the hero makes the leap of logic and gets it right on the first try, it always smacks of a writer who doesn't care about his story so much as he cares about the scenes that make it up. Which is, like I just said, exactly what I think Hitchcock and De Palma are both guilty of. They are master scene-craftsmen who didn't always make the best actual films. Anyway, I do like the scheme, it's a nice way to update a Hitchcock-styled conspiracy and mistaken-identity story into 1970s Hollywood and add lots and lots of boobs. It's not a bad film, though, if you just roll with a couple of strange details -- like that the police don't detain Jake, or the exact method with which the "Indian" murders the woman.

A couple of funny things stick out to me, though, as clearly deliberate choices that I haven't made peace with just yet. For one, Sam's death (the dog leaps into him and they both fall off a cliff into the reservoir) is just so sudden and ludicrous and unexplained -- wasn't that his dog? who protected him no matter what? ...plus it's basically a deus ex machina no different than an elf getting you out of a dungeon, since the villain's death and the hero's salvation aren't even at the hands of the hero. For another, Holly's entire performance (and especially her comedic wake-up-shouting routine immediately after the villain has died/disappeared) -- she seems a little too dense for no reason, which makes her seem less like a character and more like a plot-contrivance; she just switches motivations on a dime to match whatever is needed of her in the moment.

The thing is, though, that both seem almost Brechtian in their design, here, as De Palma goes to great pains several times to remind you this is just a movie, after all, just a cheap, tit-filled thriller. Even Jake's claustrophobia is about as real as Scottie's acrophobia in Vertigo, with a lot of fairly preposterous nail-biting and tooth-gnashing and paralysis. But this is De Palma, doing That Hitchcock Thing, and I'm torn between the idea that he just let these things be contrived because that's how Hitchcock handles them and movies make no promises about being real, or whether he is deliberately inserting unnatural elements because this is a movie about the joy of watching movies. Either way, they stick out like a sore thumb and I haven't decided if that's okay or not, but on a single viewing I'm left wondering as to the filmmaker's motivations with them.

On the subject of Brechtian beats however, I actually did enjoy the mid-climax break from reality back into the opening scene's film shoot, the chat with the director and the hero taking charge of his own paralyzing fear. It wasn't real but it was nice, and for being such a break from reality, it was smoothly integrated and never disorienting. It was one of many nice moments in here.

Also, a final thought: in addition to all the Hitchcock stuff, this movie kept calling Chinatown to mind. It has a woman posing as someone else to frame our hero, a hero named Jake who follows people around on their day-to-day lives, a showdown at the reservoir, and even makes references to Chinatown at one point. Or maybe I've just got Chinatown on the brain.

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Great discussion of BODY DOUBLE-- I have to point out: Jake does not get the mystery entirely correct on first try. As much as he thinks he has it all figured out, he overlooks the fact that the "Indian" is the same person as "Sam."